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Big changes, rapid growth mark commitment to wheat research

Jon Rich can remember when the only three people working in wheat research at the Syngenta wheat breeding and research station near Junction City were himself, Harold Erichsen and Rollie Sears. Their offices were in an old farmhouse, and they had one small, not exactly state-of-the-art greenhouse.

Big changes, rapid growth mark commitment to wheat research

Jon Rich can remember when the only three people working in wheat research at the Syngenta wheat breeding and research station near Junction City were himself, Harold Erichsen and Rollie Sears. Their offices were in an old farmhouse, and they had one small, not exactly state-of-the-art greenhouse.

Times have changed. In recent years, Syngenta has made major investments in the Junction City location, adding offices, laboratories and greenhouses that definitely are state-of-the-art. A doubled haploid research operation and hybrid wheat research have been added to the workload, and employment has swelled to 18, with plans to continue expanding.

Rich says a recent tour of the facility was a great opportunity to show off the Syngenta investment in cereals and get the word out that wheat research is on the front burner at Syngenta, with hybrid wheat in the future.

“We harvested several lines of hybrids from trials this summer,” he says. “We did testing in high-input, high-yielding areas, and we are testing hybrids in all parts of the nation; not just in Kansas, but in North Dakota, the Pacific Northwest — all over.”

Rich says the trials are promising across the board, not only for yield boost, but also for more consistency year after year in a variety of growing conditions.

Key Points

• Syngenta wheat program at Junction City is growing rapidly.

• Syngenta is committed to commercializing hybrid wheat.

• The company stresses an integrated approach to wheat management.

“My great hope for the hybrid program is that it will help farmers do really, really well in the great growing years and still enable them to get by in the down years,” he says. “I think it will provide the stability from year to year that farmers really need.”

Aside from hybrid wheat, Rich says Syngenta continues to work on traditional variety improvements as well, particularly in the realm of developing more durable resistance to pathogens.

“With the emergence of genetic marker technology, we are better able to identify genes that provide adult plant resistance. These genes are turned on later in the life of the plant, and they tend to be more durable,” Rich says.

In addition to genetic research both in hybrid wheat and in conventional varieties, Syngenta is placing extra emphasis on an integrated management program, he says.

“You can breed for resistance to diseases such as rust or fusarium, and that is important,” he says. “But you also have the constant emergence of new strains of pests that defeat that resistance package. That’s why it is important for producers to have more tools than just genetics. And that’s why we’re looking at the total package, the genetics, seed treatment and crop protection, with herbicides and fungicides.”

One challenge to acceptance of hybrid wheat by producers will be that they will lose the option to save seed from one year’s harvest to plant the next year.“I think it will be determined by how much value producers can extract from hybrid wheat,” Rich says. “That is what you have to prove with anything — that the value is there.”

As the hybrid breeding program moves forward, he says, the varieties will be evaluated both for yield bump and for end-use quality. Additional qualities will become part of the equation as well, as yields go up, he says. One that comes to mind is straw strength.

“If you start looking at routine yields pushing 100 or even 200 bushels to the acre, then you are talking a lot bigger heads and the need for far more straw strength than you need for 40- to 60-bushel wheat,” Rich says.Another challenge he sees ahead for wheat will be finding additional markets as supplies go up.

“Wheat is a human diet staple, and as such, is always in demand,” he says. “But we will also be looking at other end uses for the product.”Rich added a word of concern about the rapidly growing “gluten-free” movement.

“While we appreciate the struggles people who are sensitive to gluten endure, gluten is a natural part of wheat that can’t be eliminated. Wheat remains a vital staple food for people around the globe, and we are committed to innovations that will help farmers grow more wheat and feed our growing population.”

Working with Dad is icing on the cake

Syngenta wheat breeder Jon Rich says he has something special that most kids who leave the farm to pursue a career in agribusiness give up. That is the opportunity to work side by side, day in and day out, with his dad.

Rich’s father, Randy Rich, is a veteran wheat breeder who is also a veteran of the long battle to develop and commercialize hybrid wheat. The elder Rich worked in hybrid wheat development for multiple companies over the years before joining Syngenta in 2010, when the company made the decision to reinvest in hybrid wheat research. At that time, Randy was hired to come to Junction City — where his son Jon had just been promoted to day-to-day management of the wheat breeding program — to be in charge of hybrid wheat.

“Farming has always been about a family bond in general, and most family farms are run that way still today,” Jon Rich says. “But when you leave the farm and make your career in the agribusiness world, you don’t often get a chance to work day after day with your dad.”

The younger Rich says he has always had a great relationship with his father, and the chance to work side by side in their careers is icing on the cake.

“We have respect for each other; we float ideas back and forth; and we have the advantage of both knowing where we are coming from. It’s great to bounce things off each other in an open and free environment. We have a lot of discussion about wheat in general, and we have a mutual goal to help the producers, to help farmers be successful.”


Rapid growth: This overview of the Syngenta wheat research station at Junction City shows a growing footprint. A decade ago, the operation had offices in an historic farmhouse and one small greenhouse. Today’s facility has multiple greenhouses, offices and laboratories. Plans call for still more growth over the coming months.

NEW EQUIPMENT: A new precision-guided plot combine is one of the technological advances at the Junction City research station. New laboratories, offices and greenhouses have also been added in recent years, and employment has gone from two people a little over a decade ago to 18 employees today.


LOFTY GOALS: Syngenta AgriPro wheat breeder Jon Rich says he is proud of the advances already made, and he’s optimistic about the future.

This article published in the December, 2012 edition of KANSAS FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.

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